THE MUSEUM THAT WANTS TO BE TOUCHED
By Jack Smith
(from Westways, November, 1971)


1971 Westways CMSI Pics

On almost any weekend when the Rams or Bruins or Trojans are in action you can see something quite wonderful at Exposition Park.

Go into the California Museum of Science and Industry, just to the north of the Coliseum, turn right and walk past the snack bar to the Animal Industry Hall, and there you can see a chicken hatched.

In the center of the room there's an incubator with walls of glass and inside it a number of yellow chicks staggering about, trying to get acclimated to Los Angeles. There will also be a number of unbroken eggs, and if you watch one long enough it will probably crack and another chick will climb out, wet and puzzled, to face an uncertain life.

If you hear a big roar, it will be coming from the Coliseum, inspired by a nine-yard gain up the middle or a perfectly executed pass.

The hatching of a new chick in the museum tends to inspire silence, which is a kind of demonstration in itself, and one which, coming from a room full of impulsive children, is a greater tribute than a roar.

To be sure that their eggs hatch every day, the museum has to cheat a little. A new batch of eggs, ready to hatch, is brought in every morning. Thus, this simple miracle is always happening in the incubator, though some of the eggs, because of one fatal defect or another, never open.

In the silence of their own wonder, the children may hear a rooster crow. The museum keeps one or two in the room just to produce this rare sound, since many of the children who come to the museum have never heard a rooster crow, much less watched a chicken hatch.

I say the museum cheats a little by bringing in mature eggs. The truth is, the museum cheats a lot. I suppose that an incubator full of hatching chicks is justifiable in a museum of science and industry. Raising chickens is an industry. It's also good theater.

But down the hall I also found an exhibit celebrating the selection of three Southern California football heroes - Mike Garrett, Gary Beban, and O.J. Simpson - as Heisman Trophy winners. There were heroic wall photos of the famous backs in action, and over in a corner a crowd was watching a movie in a mood of near hysteria. It was a "documentary" of great moments of pro football - moments best forgotten. Receivers dropped easy passes; footballs squirted from quarterbacks' butter-fingers; kickers missed the ball and fell in the mud. The ball won every round. I hadn't seen a funnier movie since Laurel and Hardy.

Later, I asked William McCann, the museum's director, how he got away with an exhibit on football in a museum of science and industry. McCann keeps an office right off the main foyer, where he can be in and out of everything, popping out to meet the customers, taking a guide's place on a tour, or trying to fix a pushbutton exhibit that doesn't respond to the pushbutton.

"Well, in California," he said, "we regard football as one of our biggest industries." He had a big grin, as usual, which doesn't mean, I found out, that he isn't serious. McCann has a streak of pixie as well as tiger and saint; and when he talks about the museum his reddish straight hair falls down over his forehead and he looks a little like Raggedy Andy.

"If it's a good show," said McCann, "if it involves the community - bring it in. The whole idea is not to be hard-nosed or doctrinaire about what you bring in. Let it be a little exciting, theatrical and fun."

If the words science and industry don't quite cover the scope of the Museum of Science and Industry, the word museum is even more inadequate. Museum evokes treasures and artifacts on walls and under glass, behind velvet ropes, and signs that say QUIET and PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. It suggests tombs one cautiously tiptoes through, more awed than excited, more alienated than involved.

At the Museum of Science and Industry, on the contrary, many of the exhibits act and demand action. Some of them talk; some of them can be talked to.. They light up; they work; they play games.

They have a computer in the Mathematica room that plays tic-tac-toe with the visitors and beats them every time, or at the worst lets them have a tie. As a matter of fact, I played it twice and tied it once. I think I could beat it if it would have to make the first move.

I don't know what pulled me into the Mathematica room. Mathematics is a system that does not engage me in life beyond the intricacies of an income tax return. Einstein's theories might as well be carved on stone in ancient Assyrian, for all they mean to me. No; worse than that. Conceivably I could learn Assyrian, but not the language of mathematics. But I spent more time in Mathematica than in any other room, if you don't count watching the football movie twice.

Almost at once I was put at ease by one of the several aphorisms hanging from the ceiling. This one said, "It is easy to be impressed by what one does not understand very well. - W.H. Hardy."

For anyone who now and then counts on his fingers, it was also reassuring to find out that when you get right down to the bottom of it, the only way to prove an arithmetical axiom is by counting dots, and even that may not be foolproof.

There is a large square of lighted bulbs in the Mathematica room - 8 by 8 by 8 light bulbs square. You are permitted to press numbered buttons., making the square multiply for you. Press 3 x 3 and nine bulbs light up; press a third 3 and eighteen more light up. You can of course light up the entire square by pressing 8 x 8 x 8, whatever that adds up to.

The exhibit explains that no system can stand if it contradicts itself. Thus, you cannot say "A is not A." I knew that. What I didn't know is that arithmetic actually cannot be proved consistent - "although nobody," the exhibit assures us, "believes that it will ever be found to contradict itself."

I watched a boy press the button a few times, doing simple multiplication. He did a 2 x 3 and a 5 x 7 and went on to an 8 x 8 x 8 - nobody can resist the big one, I noticed.

"One of the best reasons for believing in arithmetic's consistency," the exhibit says, "is that the arithmetic processes can be visualized in this cube of lights. A cube of lights serves as a sort of model for arithmetic processes just as dots on paper can." In other words, if I understand the exhibit, the only way you really know that 3 x 3 makes nine is by counting three sets of three dots. If you couldn't count the dots, you would have nothing but a theory.

If only we'd had a square of light bulbs when I went to school. I might have gotten it straight at the outset.

I realized I'd been standing in front of that exhibit for ten minutes. I had already gotten enough mental stimulation out of the rooster crowing, the chickens hatching and the multiplication square to make the day worthwhile. It would take a full day, more likely a month, simply to have a superficial look at everything in the Mathematica room.

I had quickly found out what everyone else finds out. The museum is so complex, various and stimulating that people come back again and again, as they go back to school or to any enriching situation.

"People get involved here," said Bill McCann. "When they go to the art museum or the natural history museum they have to have with them, at the viewing moment, some previous background to relate to what they see. Here, a kid or parents or a family group come in cold and they learn something. We try to educate, stimulate, motivate. It's hard to put a handle on it."

1971 Westways CMSI Pics

LEAVE THE BEATEN TRACK OCCASIONALLY - YOU WILL BE CERTAIN TO SEE SOMETHING YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE.

These words of Alexander Graham Bell are displayed in the Pacific Telephone communications exhibit, but they would be appropriate for any of the rooms.

In the communications room you can pick up a telephone and hear the voice of a croaker underwater, a stuttering sound like a riveter; or the voice of a bat, like dried beans pouring on a plate, a sound that goes out at 25,000 cycles per second to seek out insects and obstructions in the dark.

More interesting than the voice of the croaker or the bat is the sound of your own voice on the telephone, as someone else hears it, and seeing your sound waves on the screen. The phones that perform this trick are hung around a circular exhibit in the center of the room, and it is probably the busiest spot in the museum.

A close second might be the electricity generator in Southern California Edison's Hall of Electricity. Turn the crank, charge yourself with electricity and shock your friends.

My own favorite might be the inventor's dream in the Southern California Gas Company's energy exhibit, a charming machine of colored wheels and cogs that has no purpose, that I could see, except to demonstrate in the most delightful way the axiom that "energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed in form; energy is the ability to do work." Here was the old schoolbook axiom come to life in these quaint wheels and pistons and levers doing their exquisite bits of work from the energy furnished by a tiny flame.

Downstairs in the Water Resources exhibit, an energetic young woman was giving a tour to a group of day-camp children who wore remarkably clean T-shirts. They sat on the steps.

"I'm Mrs. Levin," she told them, "and I'm a docent. That means I'm a tour guide. I come down to this museum because I love it here, and I have such a good time, and I hope you're going to have a good time.

"O.K. Now one question before we get on our way. Who's museum is this? Does it belong to me?"

Shouts of yes and no. Inconclusive.

"It belongs to the state," a girl said.

"Right," said Mrs. Levin. "It belongs to the state. But does it belong to me, too?"

Thought; uncertainty. "Yes," finally.

"Why?"

"Because you work here."

"O.K. What else?"

"It belongs to the public."

"Right. Your mom and dad pay taxes. This is your museum. You get to take care of it because it belongs to you."

"I didn't pay any taxes."

"No. But your mom and dad did."

"Yeh."

Having established ownership of the museum, Mrs. Levin waded fearlessly into her subject. "What's in us," she asked, "that's so important? What holds our body together?"

"Blood."

"Blood? Right. But what's in the blood?"

"Water."

"Right. Now," said Mrs. Levin, moving her hips from side to side in a kind of hula, "when I go like this you don't hear any swishy-swashy - you know, like when you have a big bottle of water and you shake it up. Why is it we don't go swishy-swashy when we have so much water?"

"Blood veins."

"You've got the right idea. It starts with a C."

"Stomach," a girl shouted.

Mrs. Levin looked uncertain about stomach.

"Once I drank so much water I could hear my stomach," the girl explained.

"Yes, sure you could. When you eat celery, what do you hear going crunch?"

"Cells."

"Cells!" cried Mrs. Levin in triumph. "You're breaking the cell walls in the celery. Because celery is mostly water, but it doesn't feel like water, does it? That's because of the cells.

"Now this whole exhibit is about water. Why? Because water's pretty important. There is more life in one drop of pond water than on the whole moon. Why? Why is there more life in one drop of pond water?"

Barbara Levin's method may sound a bit theatrical and elementary on paper, but I can tell you we were all entranced.

"All you do is throw questions at them and they answer you," she told me later. "You direct a discussion group. Sometime you learn something. That's the best part. They may not remember what I say to them, but they remember the feeling they had when they were in the museum, that they felt smart about some things, and this is our job. We're selling the museum. We're not selling information to the children - we're selling them that they should want to come."

Mrs. Levin is one of fifty or sixty active docents, mostly young women with children of their own, who give time, energy, talent and heart to the museum and its projects. The Reading Circus opening this month was conceived and realized by docents, even including the Graffiti Wall on which children waiting in line will be encouraged to write whatever comes to mind. It might be thought a risky experiment.

"What could be more appropriate for a Reading Circus," asked Janet Livingston, one of the docents behind the project, "than words? Every museum you ever heard of, they say don't touch. Hands off. Right? The whole concept of this museum is touch.

"We're saying, 'Write your words - nobody's going to censor you. There's not going to be any repression. You can't do it any place else. You know you're not allowed to write on your desks in school. You know you're not allowed to spray paint on walls. Right?' I think it's super."

"Our docents," said Bill McCann, "they aren't society types. They're young vivacious mothers who wanted to do something, wanted to do it well, put everything they could into it - from washing exhibits to putting the Reading Circus together."

The best-known woman at the museum, though, is the Transparent Woman in the Hall of Health, a bigger-than-life, talking plastic model who lights up inside as she describes her organs and her functions. She performs in a small theater, and is perennially among the most popular exhibits.

The lights dim, the music come up, and the Transparent Woman begins to glow and talk in a husky but utterly feminine voice. It might be Lauren Bacall's.

"How do you do. I'm a young woman created for the unusual purpose of showing you how I look inside, explaining what goes on there.

"First, my human brain. It is a highly complex organ that sets me apart from all other living creatures and makes me human. Here I think, create ideas, reason and remember. Here dwell my conscience and my will."

One by one the organs are revealed. "I have shown you," she concludes, "how my various organs perform and work, in harmony, to produce and maintain a healthy human being. And what I said of myself holds true for you. At this very instant your heart is beating."

Around a corner from the Transparent Woman is an exhibit whose viewers are silent and bemused. Sometimes families see it together; sometimes couples holding hands; sometimes small children alone. It is the exhibit called Human Reproduction.

Life-sized models of the human fetus are shown in various stages of development from the tiny embryo to the full-term child, ready for delivery. The models are set out at eye level in lighted lucite blocks, so they may be walked around and seen from every angle - the human creature in its journey from conception to birth. The faces of those who look are lighted by the glowing lucite and they are full of wonder and mystery.

The Space Museum is in a separate building across State Drive, but I skipped it for the day; I don't relate to space. Instead, I went looking for something I remembered from the days when I used to take my sons to the museum.

It was still there, the miniature railroad layout upstairs with the trains running all the way around the room - 240 feet - through the heart of California. It's a realistic and familiar landscape, strongly nostalgic for someone who has driven Highway 99 so many years: The yellow hills forested with oil wells, the orchards, the lonely bus stop, the railroad yards, the power lines marching over the mountains, the packing sheds, the red barns and the small flat towns with their churches and hotdog drive-ins and Ford dealers and schools.

Unfortunately, the railroad exhibit costs a dime, the dimes paying back its cost; but maybe sometimes a dime is enough to keep a child from seeing what California is like outside the ghetto. Many of those who come to the museum, especially on weekends, when it isn't full of schoolchildren bused in from all over, are from the neighborhood, the southern section of the city; black children, many with their parents. Sometimes they come with picnic baskets to make a day of it.

"They come here on a school tour in the week," said Bill McCann, "and then they come back on Saturday or Sunday with their folks. For one thing, it's free. Next summer, I think we'll change our hours during hot weather, stay open later, so more and more families can have picnics in the park. Maybe we can get the band shell fixed and have some concerts."

If they get the band shell fixed and have music in the park it will have to be with the help of the trade and musicians' unions, because while attendance at the museum keeps going up, funds from the state keep going down. The museum's exhibits are paid for by sponsoring industries - IBM, Southern California Edison, General Motors, Southern California Gas, Pacific Telephone - and the state pays only the operating overhead. Caught in the education cutback, though, the museum has lost half a million dollars in expected state funds over the past four years. Consequently it also lost a $4 million atomic energy exhibit offered by the federal government because it didn't have the money for maintenance and security.

"I'm talking about guards and janitors," McCann said, "not engineers. The government would have staffed it. "We're faced with an $80,000 cut this year. It would be so easy to say 'Oh, hell, we'll close the thing.' But this museum gets more people than the Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History put together.

"Did you know we have no vandalism? Why? I think it's related pretty much to the people of the area feeling very strongly that it's their museum, feeling that all the programs we have relate not only to the total community but to the local community."

In the past four years, the museum's attendance has grown more than 60 percent and its operating budget has been cut 50 percent. "We have fewer guides and technicians to fix these things up that people are touching, and the private sector is forced to pick up a bigger burden. We reach an impasse. Industry has gone too far."

That the museum maintains its vitality can be credited to its docents and muses, and an aggressive, forty-four-member board of trustees.

"They're not people that just exist on a letterhead," McCann said. "It's not a matter of just lip service. I don't know where we'd be if we didn't have these people rolling up their sleeves."

They wouldn't have the football show, for one thing; they wouldn't have the union members' art exhibit and the black achievement exhibit; they wouldn't have the Summer Science Workshop that draws 4,000 students to the museum every year - from kindergartners to adults; they wouldn't have a chance of getting the band shell fixed; and they wouldn't have the Reading Circus and the Graffiti Wall. I'm not even sure their chickens would hatch.

But the museum keeps on living and bringing people into its life.

I don't suppose they will be letting adults write on the Graffiti Wall, but if they did I think I know what I'd like to write:

LEAVE THE BEATEN TRACK OCCASIONALLY - YOU WILL BE CERTAIN TO SEE SOMETHING YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE.

That's what they do at McCann's Cannery.


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